Puns…more than fun

Leave a comment

Why Do Puns Make for Good Writing?


The following is a condensed version of a presentation I gave to a Michigan Reading Association conference on the place of humor in children’s reading and writing…


We like folks who make us laugh. Jokes bring us together as we tease or lampoon a political party, rival team or boss. Humor can break tension with a pointed, well-placed remark. Laughing even has some reputed effects on our immune system and general health. But beyond all that, humor can be the gateway to a life-long love of literature for our children.

It’s important to encourage a sense of humor in the children we raise or impact as teachers, librarians and other virtual family members. This is not a difficult task since kids are already wired for humor in their early development. For example, between the ages of two and five children chortle at the misuse of familiar objects, misnamed things, sounds of words and strange word combinationsPhysical humor and prat-falls are real knee slappers. Basically, youngsters are noticing the differences between the real world they know and expect and variations from it. The cognitive dissonance strikes their funny bone.

The next step, starting at approximately six years, is really interesting. This is the stage Piaget describes as ‘concrete operational thinking’ in which children begin to realize abstract concepts. The world is no longer limited to only what they can see and touch. Mathematically, 6 is not just 6 apples. It can be 2 sets of 3 anythings. Or 3 sets of 2 anythings. And in the realm of language, children realize words can have more than one meaning…enter riddles and puns. As parents and teachers, we may not find these incursions into the world of double meaning especially laughable or humorous. But the child’s job at this stage is to develop awareness that all is not what it seems on the surface. Thankfully, most kids eventually outgrow riddles and puns except for those of us who suffer from a permanent case of arrested development. The skills encouraged and gained during this developmental stage can have long-ranging implications in the same way that an introduction to music, art and sports at an early age can lead to life-long pursuits if not professional careers.

Here are some of the take-aways from childhood riddles and puns: They’re discovering new words and concepts because if they ‘don’t get it’ at first, they may have to ask for new information. More importantly they’re enjoying the intellectual challenge of linking two pieces of information seemingly unrelated. That’s power. That’s mastery in a world where teachers and grown-ups have all the answers and therefore, control. It’s a heady experience to get a grown-up to say, “I give up.” And finally, a young riddler can earn social coin the way other children get strokes for grades and musical or athletic talent.

In fostering a sense of humor the educational objective is to develop ‘divergent’ as opposed to ‘convergent’ thinking. We want children to look for and expect to find alternative meanings behind what they hear and see. This is extremely important for science, the arts and business as we ask future generations to think creatively in a rapidly changing technological world.

All this from riddles and puns?  Perhaps. My daughter taught English in China for a year. She found a strong bias toward uniformity and conformity in thinking among her students. If the class was asked to offer an opinion, everyone waited until one brave person offered an idea whereupon they all chimed in in agreement. Sure and true answers were learned and repeated. Open-ended questions were a way to lose face if the answer was deemed incorrect.

Applied knowledge and relational thinking should be an educational goal for us. Teaching children to play with words is a way to show them that not all words are absolutely, literally true in every instance; that we should be, need to be, on the alert for secondary meaning, the distaff of the obvious. Which of course is the basis of creative writing, poetry, fiction. We’re asking kids to juxtapose ideas and images that wouldn’t normally go together when we challenge them with humor on the way to literary arts…the beauty of the written word follows from the joy of word play.


  •  Here’s a humorous story that I wrote for Mother Earth News on this topic…

Help for the Humor Deprived

going for the laugh

 “Hey, Rube, look at that man burning leaves,” I said, squatting to my son’s eye level and pointing to the fire that almost singed an above-ground swimming pool. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

My claim to immortality paused, thought. “He’s too close.”

“What might happen?” I prompted.

“Burn a hole.”


“Water’ll go all over the fire.” Rube chortled and clapped his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” I shouted, “My son likes your fire extinguisher.”

The leaf-burner studied his fire for a moment. Then he grinned. “Actually, I was trying a new way to heat the pool.”

There was a man after my own heart – a man with a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what I wanted to teach my son – to see the funny side of life. I never had any help as a kid. Everything I learned about whimsy, I learned the hard way – on my own. But my son was going to have it easy. I was going to teach him the joy of jokes the way some people teach their children to build a log cabin – step by step.

One of the first lessons was how to size up an audience. We were getting a pre-school physical when the pediatric nurse strapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm to show Rube that it wouldn’t hurt. I took the occasion to rub her wrist. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m just not feeling myself today.”

“Mr. Sandwich,” the nurse sniffed as she pulled herself to the full height of her indignation and marched out of the room.

“Now we know not to waste good jokes on her,” I explained to my son. “She was probably a deprived child. I bet her parents never played a joke on her or asked her riddles or even made puns.” I sighed. “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I remember the first time I encountered comically deprived children. I had just died – as us comedians refer to a joke that bombs – at my friend’s house, in front of his parents and grandparents. It was the old gag about why we put angels on top of Christmas trees. You know the one about Santa being all stressed out because the reindeer had hoof and mouth disease, and the elves were on strike, and Mrs. Claus had the flu when an angel bounced into the toy shop with a Christmas tree and asked, “Where would you like me to stick this, Santa?”

Everyone just stared at me. I quickly added, “So, from that day to this, the angel sits on top of the Christmas tree.”


You can’t blame the kids in that situation. They didn’t know any better. It’s the parent’s responsibility to introduce their children to the finer nuances of humor in our culture. Somebody needs to spend quality time with those kids loosening them up to the possibilities of word play, the surprise of the unexpected; not to mention the joy of a roomful of people groaning in unison.         

You can imagine my delight in another class-clown in the making when Rube came home from the first day of school and announced, “It’s a tough house, Dad.”

“And how’s your teacher.”

“Too damned sweet.”

“I prefer that you don’t use that word.”

“Okay. She’s too damned nice.”

My efforts were paying off. But like a good coach, I looked for every opportunity to challenge my star prospect. For example, one day at the beach, a live Barbie doll lay on her see-through air mattress in the shallow water. What caught my eye was the turquoise dog’s leash – I’m serious now, humor is not a laughing matter – that trailed from her hand straight into the lake. I nudged Rube and rolled my eyes at the floating princess.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

“She’s probably using it like an anchor rope, tied to a rock or something,” he offered.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” I coaxed.

Rube’s eyes started to dance. “Maybe she’s taking her catfish for a walk?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. Try again.”

Rube looked at me, grinned.

“Go for it.”

“Excuse me, lady,” my son said. “In case you didn’t realize… your dog’s been underwater for a long time.”

Some months later shopping for Christmas ornaments, my son and I priced a set of colored lights.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “$9.95 plus six percent for tax brings it to…”

“Tacks?” Rube inquired. “What do you need tacks for? Don’t you just loop the lights over the branches?”

I stopped. Studied my son. “Tax, as in income tax. Only this is a sales…” That’s when I caught the corner of his mouth twitching. He got me. He had me going. For a person who sees life as a stage and every person out there as an audience, you have to admit my son did me proud. He’s got the eye, the timing – whatever you want to call it.

When it was our turn at the register, the clerk checked my ID.

“James Sandwich,” he read aloud. “Interesting name. Ever think of working in a deli?”

I grimaced. How rude – taking liberties with my name.

“And what’s your son’s name? Ham? HamSandwich?”

“No,” Rube replied, “my name’s Reuben…”

My son stopped. Stared at me for a long time. He hasn’t told a joke since. And he was coming along so fine.


Jokes Bring Strokes

Leave a comment

Jokes bring strokes and verbal cleverness gets points in playground circles. Puns and other verbal by-play can be taken from the story and used to impress friends. An actual joke, if not too long or hard to remember, is a bonus.

From Can Do, Zan where a bear visits their campsite in the Minnesota Boundary Waters.

“Go! Get away from that food!” Nick shouted at the bear.

Like a turtle checking for danger, Zan slowly slid his head out the tent flap and aimed his flashlight toward the clanking and banging sounds. Two yellow eyes glared back followed by a deep rumbling sound like a truck starting up. Zan sucked his head back inside, zipped the door, shut off the flashlight and groped around for his shoes.

“Now, what are you doing?” Lazelle asked.

“Putting on my running shoes.”

“What for? You can’t outrun a bear in the woods – especially in the dark.”

“I don’t need to outrun the bear,” TJ shot back quickly. “I just need to outrun you.”

Gross is Good

Leave a comment

A good story for boys is never harmed by a dose of the gross, yucky and slimy as in this hazing scene from

Wa-Tonka, Camp Cowboys.

Nick felt slippery hands gobbing something cold and greasy in his hair, all over his body. It had a familiar smell – from the kitchen. Was it margarine? Close. Vegetable shortening, that’s what it was. They were pouring something else on his head and it was running slowly over his face, down his back. Sweet smelling, sticky, slow moving – they were dousing him with maple syrup.

Pushing the Envelope

Leave a comment

Because boys can be heard to ask in quick succession: ‘How do you do that?’ followed by ‘Let me try it?’ they enjoy stories with physical challenges such as sailboarding, bull riding, rappelling and the like. The characters model competence and skills that the reader can learn by ‘watching’—something he’s used to doing at playgrounds, skateboard parks and Gus Macker tournaments. Between the drive to emulate kinetic feats and the universal “I dare you,” good ‘boy stories’ have characters pushing the envelope. As in this scene from Zan, City Cowboy where Nick Finazzo attempts bronc riding for the first time.

Nick gripped the thick braided rope in his gloved hand, took a deep breath and a last look into the arena. Ramón waited on one side. Carlos on the other. Two of his buddies were out there. They would be sure to race over and help him off the horse. Riding on either side of the bronc, one would release the bucking strap – the rope tied just in front of the horse’s hind legs to make him buck. The other would help Nick slide out of the saddle to a safe landing. That’s if he stayed on till the buzzer. Ten seconds. Forever….

 In this scene, from Can Do, Zan, Alexander has more determination than ability as he tries to show he can swim at a summer camp.

 Zan jumped straight out over the water and managed to close his eyes and gulp a breath of air before he landed flat on his stomach. His gut burned, his face stung and all the air he had sucked in, shot out in a huge bubble. He clawed for the surface and took a huge gulp. Too soon. He got mostly water. Coughing and hacking he remembered to windmill his arms and twist his head. I’m doing just like the other guys, he thought. I’m swimming. See, I knew I could do it.

Skills Tell

Leave a comment

    Boys  can tell a lot about a person by how they play sports. If boys were in charge of personnel departments they would conduct job interviews by having the candidates play volleyball. Boys choosing sides in a pickup game are acutely aware of each other’s skill level. High drama is when a new guy shows up and has to audition for his place in the batting order. So, in boy’s stories, action is not just exciting, especially if it involves horses or other challenging outdoor sports, it tells much about the character and moves the plot along. Look for books and stories that play off skills and skill assessment rather than relationships. Here are a couple of examples.

Background: Nick Finazzo is impressed by Bobby Petzer to whom he has loaned his special  horse, Prince, for a Gymkhana event. Wa-Tonka! camp cowboys

He jogged Prince into a gentle canter in a small tight circle, almost like he was winding up a spring. Finally, on the third time around, at the precise moment when they were aimed straight down the course, he lowered the reins and Prince blurred by, heading down, coming back.

But what Nick really saw was the rider. In slow motion. It was his body. The way he moved with the horse. Helping him. Talking to him with his weight, posture and legs.

 In another story, Nick enjoys watching a loudmouth bully try to windsurf for the first time. Riding the Waves, Lake Michigan Cowboy.

 Roy bent to grab the up-haul rope and braced himself like an anchor-man in a tug-of-war contest. Muscles bulged – arms, thighs, upper back – fighting the sail’s grip on the water surface. Little by little, the sail inched upward. Roy kept pulling. The sail popped free. Roy rolled over backwards pulling the sail on top of himself.

Nick smiled to himself, waiting for the water-logged carpenter to reappear. Not everything’s about muscles. You’re fighting it big guy. Like riding a bike. It’s not about strength. You just have to get the hang of it.

Roy slapped at the water in frustration.

On the Spot Problem Solving

Leave a comment

       On the spot thinking and problem solving is as old as Hansel and Gretel and still engaging because children want to believe in the power of their minds and wills to control their world. To do that, they have to imagine themselves being resourceful and quick thinking. Harry Potter is always figuring out escapes and turn-abouts. The draw behind the Home Alone movies is that a kid can outwit adults. At critical points in a middle reader story, I picture a good teacher stopping and asking, “How would you solve this?”

       Here’s a scene from my novel, Zan, City Cowboy, where a kid thinks outside the box and outwits an adult in the process:

 Background: Carlos, faced with a flat tire on a loaded hay wagon, is trying to decide how he might jack up the wagon to put on a spare tire.

“You don’t need to raise the truck. You just need to lower the ground,” Zan said.

“What ?” Carlos demanded.

“Just put some logs under the axle.”

“And then…?” Carlos coaxed.

Zan looked at the wrangler as if the rest was obvious. Carlos shrugged – I don’t know. “What?”

Zan answered like a teacher explaining something for the third time. “You dig a hole under the tire. Put on the spare. Fill up the hole. Then you drive the truck away.”

       I think it’s important to look for stories that reinforce cleverness in action. And I think it’s important to challenge students to puzzle out solutions and write about them. Here’s another example of quick thinking to thwart a bully from Can Do, Zan:

 Background: Zan is in the principal’s office and later is confronted by the bully, Lazelle, in the boy’s locker room.

Inside the office, Zan had just sat down when the phone rang. Mr. Akers answered, “Oh, hello Mrs. Thompson. How can I help you?” Mr. Akers nodded in agreement. “I understand. Your son is frightened by the bullying he’s being subjected to.”

Bored, Zan studied Mr. Aker’s phone and memorized the number written on the front: 585-9905.

The head of the academy nodded several times, “I couldn’t agree more. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior. And I can assure you if I ever run across an older student harassing an underclassman I will come down hard.” Hanging up the phone, Mr. Akers paused. Stared out the window. Then, as if he suddenly remembered that Zan was there, he said, “What are we going to do with you, Alexander? You just don’t like patterned activity. But so much of life is based on just that kind of routine…”

 After gym class that afternoon, Zan heard Lazelle talking to his buddy on the other side of the lockers.

“That punk Zan thinks he’s bad with his cool gym shoes.”

Zan reached for Kyle’s Blackberry, punched in 585-9905 then set it on the bench while he hurried to finish dressing.

“Got some bad gym shoes,” Lazelle said grabbing one off the bench.

“Hey, leave my shoes alone, Lazelle!” Zan said, turning his head toward the phone. “Give me back my shoe, man!”

“You don’t know how to lace up your shoes,” Lazelle said. “Your laces are too loose,” he continued, pulling the laces tight, then tying them in knots.

“Hey, man, leave my shoes alone,” Zan pleaded.

“Your shoes,” Lazelle replied. “How do we know they’re yours? I don’t see no name on them. Seems like you should have your name on them. Right across the toe. Anybody got a magic marker?” the oversized eighth grader yelled.

Suddenly the principal appeared. “Is there a problem here, gentlemen?”

“No problem, sir,” they all answered in unison.

“Well, I have a problem with the behavior I just witnessed. Come to my office, Lazelle.”

As soon as Lazelle left, Zan gave Kyle a low five. His buddy grinned and turned off the phone.


Character Descriptions/Dialogue

Leave a comment

Character descriptions

Players in the drama of boy’s stories are more memorable by the impact they make than their hair color or body shape or clothes all of that is simple and two dimensional as coloring book outlines. What matters is the emotional freight a character carries, how they come across to my protagonists, as mean, angry, friendly, helpful. A single trait that embodies that dominant feeling is the key to describing the person. Action and dialogue add to it.


He reached toward the rim but couldn’t see the sky. An eighth grader hung over him like a tree with out-stretched branches. One of the limbs crashed down on the ball, on him…The eighth grader leaned over Zan, his face as dark as the shadow he cast with his blown-out Afro. “Don’t bring that stuff in here. This is my court.”

Can Do, Zan


As soon as Pete left, Zach crossed the road, wiggled into the dumpster and began tossing out pieces of plywood and useable scraps of lumber.

“Hey, what’re you doin’ in there?” a deep voice boomed.

Oh-oh. Now I’m in trouble, Zach thought. He peeked over the edge of the dumpster. A burly man walked toward him rocking from side to side like a stump-legged pirate. The man pulled a pack of Camels from the chest pocket of his faded purple T-shirt. He popped out a cigarette. Lit it.

“I asked you what you think you’re doing taking stuff off private property.”

Zach found his voice. “Just getting a few scraps. And I figured all this was going to the dump anyway so it wasn’t really stealing and I need the wood to make a box for all the things I found across the street at the Drake farm and I’m going to make a movie about all those things and my dad and the other Civil War reenactors are restoring the old house…”

The man scowled.

This isn’t working, Zach realized.

“This is private property,” the man growled. “I’m the construction manager for these buildings and you got no business trespassing here.”

Zach thought fast. The man reminded him of his dad’s carpenter buddies. He knew how much they liked to talk about their tools. “You don’t happen to have a saw around here, do you? A good one, like a Makita?”

“What’s that got to with it, kid?”

Zach knew he had to keep pushing. “Because the only kind we have at home is a handyman Ryobi. No guts. And I’m going to need a good saw to trim up these scraps.”

The manager squinted at Zach but half-smiled at the same time. “You got a lot of nerve kid. You ain’t borrowing no saw from me, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He flicked his cigarette and ground it slowly under his steel toed work boots, the shiny metal poking through where the leather was worn off. When he looked up, his face was dead serious. “If that’s all the lumber you need, take it and go. But don’t let me catch you sniffing around here again. You could hurt yourself.”

Tales From the Drake House Outhouse

Older Entries